Psycho (1960 USA)

psycho5Imagine it is July 1960. You’ve just paid your thirty pieces of silver to the pharisees that own the movie theatre. You are shut in with all the other well dressed patrons. Not one tattoo amongst them, no mobile phones, no cries of “Shaniqua, move beeyatch!” or hip hop muzak to disturb the ambience. The lights go down. And then the screaming starts! Just ignore those kids to your left rioting over a pair of sneakers and keep your eyes on that screen up there. This here is the inspiration for many future classics like Eaten Alive. Show some respect!

Norman Bates is at the psychological crossroads of his life, a pivotal juncture wherein he is required to make a conscious decision that will determine the course of the rest of his life: Whether to reach for the light (and healing), or succumb to the voices beckoning to him from the dark, a place from which there will be no return. Norman, however is incapable of making that decision, and ultimately must adhere to the resolution of the subconscious, which takes him past the point of no return and subsequently beyond the reach of any help forevermore. The rest of the characters in the story– Marion Crane, Lila, Sam Loomis, Arbogast– are all mere pawns who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and are forced by fate to help play out the drama of Norman’s twisted existence.

The first time I saw this film, in 1983, I was quite disappointed. So much of it had become cliché since its release, including the famous shower scene, Perkins’ oedipal relationship with his mother, and even Bernard Herrmann’s unsettling score. I felt like a fairground psychic giving a very accurate reading to a gullible client. Years earlier, flicking through a magazine as a child, I had discovered the identity of Perkins’ “mother” even before I saw the film and had to be told by a sibling that the audience was not supposed to be aware of this until nearly the end of the picture. It was like knowing the punch line in advance and not really getting the joke once it was actually told. Psycho has gone down in infamy to such an extent that people generally know the whole schmear (Yiddish was never my strong subject in school so excuse a possible mis-spelling) without having to experience it. A bit like the Bible.

psycho    (Norman is not liking the way this review is going…)

This downside means the element of shock that so affected audiences back in 1960 is almost entirely lost on a later generation of viewers. One thus has to imagine what it would have been like to see it during its first run. All those open mouthed reactions. Women hiding their eyes and moaning while the violins shriek “EEEK EEEK EEEK!” Its not the most subtle of scores, I admit. But it is Bernard Herrman’s most recognized. Had I been there at its opening, (and I should have been, dammit!) I think I would still have judged this film to be inferior to the string of excellent Hitchcock offerings preceding it during the previous decade–from “Strangers on a Train” to “North by Northwest.” Why? So much of his previous work had relied on the use of suspense to draw the viewers into the plot.

A good thriller builds this up carefully and deliberately until the final climax at or near the end of the film. Good suspense leaves much unstated and works its way subtly into the imagination. It’s what you don’t see that’s the scariest. Think, for example, of the murder in “Rear Window.” You hear a crash and a short, shrill scream followed by ominous silence, but you’re not really sure what’s happened until much later. Here, on the other hand, Hitch kills off his heroine less than halfway through, in a highly perverse and prurient manner. Thus, leaving little if anything to the imagination, and largely putting aside the issues we had been misled to think the plot was building up to. There is not much humour to be found in shock, while there is great humorous potential in suspense.

He should have stuck with suspense and left shock to a lesser director. I alluded to Herrmann’s score. Without it, I think this would have been judged a far less effective film and less the classic it is generally reputed to be. Imagine Leigh driving along the highway without the composer’s jittery music in the background–or, perhaps more accurately, the foreground. In such scenes it is the music that almost entirely creates the suspenseful atmosphere. Without it there is nothing of the sort–just Leigh driving and looking in her rear view mirror. Period. Not very scary. Is it a classic then? It is, insofar as it influenced a whole generation of movie-goers and film makers who sought to imitate it. But on its own merits, I don’t think so.




  1. Wonderful review, I love your fresh take on this classic and how our current generation’s lack of reaction at things, such as the loud violin score, certainly render this film even more dated than it perhaps should be. Favourite line of this review has to be “Shaniqua, move beeyatch!” – I LOL’d in real life as this is so true (I heard similar at the cinema last week in fact)! XD

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are very kind. Thanks! 🙂


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